A Looking-Glass for Ladies: American Protestant Women and the Orient in the Nineteenth Century REVIEW
In Lisa Joy Pruitt, recent book A Looking Glass for Ladies: American Protestant Women and the Orient in the Nineteenth Century, the reader is given a comprehensive look at the experience of female missionaries and their reports of those experiences. Pruitt provides a brief introduction to the origins of American missions in the Middle and Far East along with an analysis of their memoirs, their experience of marriage to missionaries and motherhood in foreign lands. She devotes a chapter to the work of women as educators, doctors, and nurses and concludes with a chapter of women has administrators of their own missionary organizations.
Throughout the book, Pruitt notes the influence that missionary women had on American perceptions of the “orient” and highlights how the place of women in these various societies served as a primary justification for the support of the entire missionary endeavor. Ironically, Pruitt often refers to the disparaging comments made by missionaries regarding the women that they encountered in turkey, china, Burma, and India as “tropes” and yet she concludes the book with a survey of the state of women’s rights in some of these countries that contests that even to a modern observer, the life of women in some parts of the word does not compare favorably with the life of women in contemporary America.
One suspects that 19th Century missions supporters asserted that the preaching and reception of the Christian gospel was the necessary catalyst to improving the lot of women whereas today, a message of human rights and support for women’s education, disconnected from religious conversion suffices. 19th century missionaries, no doubt, could not have conceived of a society that rejected Christianity and protected a woman’s right to actualize her potential. They saw religion as the basis for all improvement in human social systems and reports of gender oppression were synonymous with assertions to a need for conversion, ergo, more missionary support.
To the modern ear, the missionary cant about the state of women in the Orient (a region that comprises many different sub-cultures from Morocco to Egypt to Syria to turkey to Iran to China, Burma, and the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) sounds pompous, bigoted, and arrogant. It is full of the sound of “our-religion-is-better-than-yours.” One should note however that the motives of most American missionary women were rooted in two vital convictions. One was that the true sign of personal holiness was a disinterested benevolence towards all humanity. Kindness and affection for one’s own family and circle of friends was not enough. Holiness involved a sincere and active affection for all human beings no matter how remote. A second conviction was, as stated, that all human social problems were the consequence of erroneous theology which was always a consequence of having not read and believed the Bible. The Reverend Joel Hawes put it this way in one of his sermons in support of the American missionary movement:
“Throughout the world, where the Bible is unknown, woman is ignorant, degraded, substantially enslaved ; a poor, trembling drudge, waiting on the desires of a haughty, domineering master. But wherever the Bible has diffused its light and power, there it has restored woman to her proper place in society ; it has redeemed her from an Egyptian bondage of body and mind, and while it has given greater sensibility and delicacy to her affections, it has enlarged her understanding, purified her taste, adorned her manners, dignified her character, and widened exceedingly the circle of her influence and enjoyments.”
For women who wished to live useful lives on behalf of the wider world they were required to care about, missionary activity that sought to bring the Bible, translate the Bible, distribute the Bible, preach the Bible, and teach girls and women to read so that they could access was the apex of holiness and the royal road to sainthood. Missionary women were paragons of virtues that all American Christian women were taught to admire. And American women were interested in reading about them. Pruitt explains as follows.
“In an extensive bibliography appended to his Encyclopedia of Missions, Edwin Munsell Bliss identified seventy American missionary memoirs published before 1870. Fifty-four of them (77%) had missionaries to Asia as their subject. Twenty-six of the twenty-seven memoirs about women focused on women who served in Asia. Americans, especially American women, clearly wanted to know about the condition of women in the ‘Orient’ and the work of missionary women to ameliorate those conditions.”
A person would be hard pressed to find where an aspiring intelligent woman of the early 19th century could have looked to have seen a door opening to her with more meaningful work.
Question for Comment: How do you determine just how wide the circle of your disinterested benevolence should expand?